When Everyone Is Barking, the World Is Changed by Those Who Meow

Groundbreaking ideas begin by defying expectation

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In a piece written for Harper’s Magazine, Tom Robbins, my literary personal Jesus, tells a story about one of the musicians that plays on Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog.” This, as he relates it, was the musician heard barking at the end of the song.

When asked about this seemingly inspired moment, the backup man said, “I was going to meow, but that was too hip for them.”

And therein lies the secret to clients surviving in today’s ever-crowded landscape.

Walk with me for a bit on this one.

To bark at the end of a song called “Hound Dog” is clever, but not necessarily genius or unpredictable. It’s just clever enough for people to think they are buying into something creative. It’s the safe side of risky.

But to meow is inspired.

The key is recognizing, pushing for and valuing the difference between “just creative enough” and truly breakthrough ideas.

Meowing has edge, a backstory. It stays with you after the music has left.

We as an industry are often too tempted by the bark, the safe one. When presented with the choice, “just creative enough” will most likely be the default.

Yet, the cases that we all hold in esteem, the ones that truly stand out, turn business around and fill the PowerPoints of jealous competitors—the Old Spices, Burger Kings, Snickers—are the times when someone dared to meow.

The key is recognizing, pushing for and valuing the difference between “just creative enough” and truly breakthrough ideas.

It’s not falling for the comfortable siren song of good, and understanding that in today’s attention-numbing, oversaturated environment where good has become table stakes, “just creative enough” becomes part of the noise. Safe is the new risky.

For clients, it’s about going with ideas that make you feel something versus the ideas that check the boxes. The idea that may make you nervous at first, but even more nervous if your competitors did it instead.

For agencies, it may be the one “they would never buy” or the one they didn’t ask for. It’s always the one you can’t wait to show them. Don’t stop until you get there.

While a bark may make things comfortably playful, a meow changes the game.